The Real Buddy Holly

Today he’s even more popular than when he died 36 years ago–and yet, he’s still a stranger to his millions of fans. Who was the Lubbock rocker whose influence on pop music will not fade away?
Courtesy of Michael Archives

Inside Lubbock’s Pancake House on Q Street, it’s breakfast all day long, and the patrons who file in at all hours fall heavily into the wooden chairs as if to take root there. The folks here are gener­ally older, and they wear cotton shirts and jeans and blow steadily on their coffee while the steam rises to their jowls. No one here is on a fast track; no one here is in a rush, except for more coffee.

The Pancake House has been around for only a couple of decades, yet no one seems able to remember when it wasn’t here. It’s a throwback from birth, like Lubbock itself, which is the youngest of the state’s eight cities with populations exceeding 150,000, though the town feels much smaller and not very young at all. Sophisticates have always snickered at Lubbock, where six-packs of beer aren’t for sale and which, according to city officials, has more churches per capita than any other midsize city in America. But for a town that has had to endure life on the barren Llano Estacado, it’s by no means a spiteful place—nor half as backward as outsiders think. Evidence abounds that Lubbock has been made familial with the nineties: the rows of sleek three-year-old brick houses on the southwest side of the city, the brew-pub and the techno-dance venues in the “depot district” abutting downtown, the crack houses on the east side, and a first-term mayor named David Langston who, it is whispered, has progres­sive leanings. But the Pancake House is where one eases back into the traditional ways that have made Lubbock what it is—a hub city that generates no sudden movements.

The man at my table, 69-year-old Larry Holley, says to the wait­ress bringing the coffeepot, “Better go and fill mine all the way up. I’m gonna need every drop.” Larry has owned the Holley Tile Company for more than forty years, though in the sixties he nearly went bankrupt and had to go to work for his local competitor. Business is good now, he tells me. But it was never better, in a sense, than it was in the mid-fifties, when Larry laid tile while a Holley Tile employee—who happened to be his youngest brother, Charles, nicknamed Buddy—sat on the tile boxes and sang, strumming an acoustic guitar. “Nah, Buddy didn’t do a whole lot of work, but I didn’t mind,” Larry says, his eyes alight with fond­ness. “I just loved to hear him play.”

Larry wasn’t the only one. And after Buddy (along with fellow musicians Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper) went down in a plane crash after taking off from the Mason City, Iowa, airport on February 3,1959, at the age of 22, songwriter Don McLean depicted the tragedy twelve years later as “the day the music died.” For Larry Holley, who had always loved music, this was literally the case. “After Buddy died,” he tells me, his gaze steady and sad, “I didn’t listen to the radio for maybe ten years. I just couldn’t.”

But the music went on, and so did Larry, and so did Lubbock. In truth, Lubbock always went on with or without Buddy Holly, the city’s only world-famous native son. Two decades passed before city officials, in the wake of a Hollywood film depicting Buddy’s life, saw fit to erect a statue of the great musician. This seeming apathy has been a matter of consid­erable outrage among Holly fans, but one acquaintance of Buddy’s suggests that Buddy would have had no hard feelings. “There’s a stubbornness in Lubbock, which Buddy himself had,” says Peggy Sue Rackham, the woman immortalized in two Buddy Holly songs. “If they try to ram it down your throat here, you say no!”

Regardless, a sudden resurgence of Buddy-mania has taken place, and this time, Lubbock is in the center of it all. The city has purchased 156 pieces of Buddy’s personal effects—ranging from his first Fender Stratocaster electric guitar and his record collection to a notebook in which he crafted various lyrics—and will be exhibiting several of the pieces at the Museum of Texas Tech University until next May, when a permanent downtown space will house the entire collection. Though small, the exhibit is an affecting glimpse of the evolving genius of a small-town boy. In addition, a new Buddy Holly biography will be published by St. Martin’s Press this month. Written by transplanted Texas au­thor Ellis Amburn, the book is intended to be the first readable history of Buddy, supplementing the exhaustive but turgid biogra­phy Remembering Buddy, by John Goldrosen and John Beecher. And finally, a compilation of Buddy Holly songs recorded this year by various popular artists, titled Not Fade Away will hit the record stores on December 19. The CD, which includes appear­ances by the Band, Los Lobos, Nanci Griffith, Graham Nash, and Buddy’s protégé Waylon Jennings, is an ex­hilarating tribute to Buddy. Ironically, Not Fade Away appears on Decca Records, the label that let Buddy fade away from a recording contract in 1956.

Taken together, the museum, the biography, and the record remind us that a solitary figure from Lubbock re­mains one of the world’s most towering influences on pop­ular music. Lacking Elvis Presley’s mythical persona, Buddy Holly “sounded and looked like a friend,” in the words of one writer. His unimposing presence was a source of inspiration for two bespectacled young men, Roy Orbison and John Lennon, and in 1977 it would cul­minate in the defiantly nerdy form of Elvis Costello. As Rolling Stones’ guitarist Keith Richards observed, Buddy Holly and the Crickets were the world’s first “self-con­tained rock and roll band,” writing their own songs, per­forming their own music, recording and touring cease­lessly. The Beatles (whose name was inspired by the Crickets) and the Stones made no secret of Buddy’s influence on them; in fact, the former’s first single was “That’ll Be the Day,” while the latter’s was “Not Fade Away,” both Holly originals. Buddy’s hiccupping tenor twang, his peculiar guitar downstrokes, and above all,

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